The nephew of a Nelson-raised World War II pilot will attend a ceremony in France next week honouring his uncle, whose plane was shot down in 1944.
Wreckage from flight officer Harry MacKenzie’s Typhoon aircraft was found in a marsh near the village of Sacy le Grand, a farming community about 40 km north of Paris, touching off a search for his descendents and the creation of a memorial by local residents.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Ian MacKenzie of Coquitlam, who with wife Kim will visit the site where the plane’s engine was recovered and then join 300 guests at a reception at the town hall the next day.
“In October 2009, I got an email at work from a man named Eric Fardel. It was in my junk folder and I almost deleted it, but it said ‘Are you related to [Harry] MacKenzie? We’ve pulled the motor from his plane.’ It went exponentially from there.”
Hector Henry MacKenzie Jr. — Hank or Harry to friends — was born in 1920 in the now-abandoned B.C. mining town of Anyox, but his family soon moved to Nelson, where his father was a popular physician and surgeon at Kootenay Lake hospital.
As Sylvia Crooks writes in Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson, BC in World War II, Harry received most of his education here, but his parents sent him to boarding school in Victoria for Grade 10, where he badly missed his friends and begged to come home.
“He raised hell and what for and he joined us for [Grades] 11 and 12,” his classmate Dawn Penniket told Crooks. “He was a great guy, more fun and a lousy dancer but much loved by our gang. He and Bob Crerar owned an old car and it always was in a million pieces spread out on Carbonate Street.” (The MacKenzies lived at 504 Carbonate.)
A few lines beside his name in the 1940 high school yearbook revealed his interest in flying: “Girls and boxing and aeroplanes; In which field will he attain fame?”
Harry spent a couple of years attending the University of BC before enlisting in the army. He later joined the air force and went overseas in August 1942. Late that year he was seconded by the Royal Air Force’s 198th, a bomber squadron based in Kent, England that flew Hawker Typhoons by night, raiding barges and trains in the lead-up to D-Day.
“A pilot I know said anyone who flew one of those things during the war should have got a medal just for surviving them because they were not designed for dog fighting or high altitude,” Ian MacKenzie says. “They were low altitude [planes] — they created a lot of damage and were very fast.”
Harry finished his tour of duty and was about to go home on leave when he volunteered to fill in for a missing crew member on a mission over France on January 3, 1944. One seat was open among the four single-cockpit planes, and Harry and his friend James MacDonald of Vancouver tossed a coin to see who would go.
“He won,” Ian recounts. “They said he was excited. Apparently, the guys in the squadron called them the Merry Macs because it was a MacDonald and a MacKenzie. They were both 23.”
The base commander reported that the pilots encountered five Messerschmitts between the Forest of Compeigne and the resort of Le Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais.
“They got into a bit of a dog fight, scrambled, and headed back,” Ian says. One German plane was destroyed and two others damaged. All the RAF planes called in on their way back, including Harry’s — but Harry never returned.
“They believe the German fighters caught up and shot him down,” Ian says. “He was killed in the crash when he hit the ground. There’s an 80-plus-year-old gentleman in [Sacy le Grand] who as a child stood there. He said ‘The plane crashed right there, I was over here. I watched the German soldiers take his body from the plane and leave the plane there.’”
Harry was buried in Marissel French National Cemetery, while the marsh swallowed what was left of his aircraft.
Sixty-five years later, a man dredging his property hooked on to something unusual and asked neighbours to help him pull it out. Up came a plane engine with part of a bent propeller on it.
One of the neighbours, Eric Fardel, tried to learn about the pilot, starting with no more than the number from one of the motors. Thanks in part to the fact the Hawker Typhoon was a specialized plane, a Royal Air Force historian in Scotland was able to trace it back to Harry MacKenzie.
Then Fardel began searching for relatives — something Sylvia Crooks tried to do while researching her book, published in 2005, but with little luck as MacKenzie was too common.
Coincidentally, Harry’s father delivered her, and she knew he had at least one brother, but the family moved to New Westminster in 1941, the year before he went overseas. Probably as a result, Harry’s name isn’t on the Nelson cenotaph. “But surely Nelson was home,” Crooks says.
Fardel had more luck. Using the Internet, he tracked down Ian, whose father was Harry’s youngest brother. Ian Sr. was a sea cadet, but the war ended before he was old enough to enlist. Rod, the middle brother, was declared medically unfit for service.
Fardel also found other family members that the younger Ian didn’t know about — descendents of his grandfather’s siblings. However, Ian and his two brothers are Harry’s closest relations, although they never met.
“I’ve gone to Nelson often just knowing that’s where my dad and his family grew up,” he says.
Early this year, Ian received word that Sacy Le Grand planned to honour his uncle. The salvaged engine, now cleaned and painted, will be the centrepiece of a memorial that will also include pictures of Harry and his plane and a bit of his story.
The village council has designated a place for it and is naming a new street Roue de Henry Hector MacKenzie. Ian is going to the dedication ceremony June 25, although his brothers won’t be able to make it. Canadian and French military representatives are expected as well, along with someone from the Royal Air Force.
Ian has asked the offices of the prime minister, premier, and Nelson’s mayor for something he can present to the town’s residents. “It’s been all their money and time, dedicated to this 23-year-old kid from Nelson,” he says. “It’s incredible.”
Crooks agrees: “The people in this village have gone to such enormous effort to remember this pilot, it would be nice if there could be some official thank you.”
The day after the ceremony, Ian and his wife will pay graveside visits to Harry and other members of his squadron.